The risky chemical lurking in your wallet

New research finds that the BPA in cash register receipts can be absorbed through skin.

Published: March 29, 2014 08:15 AM

Concerns about the safety of Bisphenol A (BPA) have prompted a federal ban on the chemical in baby bottles and sippy cups, and some manufacturers have now removed it from water bottles and food containers. But the thermal paper used for cash register and other receipts is another common source of BPA. And a new study shows for the first time that handling the paper leads to increased levels of the chemical in the body.

Food is the top source of BPA exposure simply because so much of what we eat and drink comes packaged in BPA-containing plastic containers or cans (BPA is in the linings). But the form of BPA used in food containers is chemically bound, while the type used in thermal paper easily rubs off.

“There's more BPA in a single thermal paper receipt than the total amount that would leach out from a polycarbonate water bottle used for many years," said John Warner, Ph.D., president of the Warner Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry. Research has linked BPA to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers, cardiovascular disease, and reproductive and brain development abnormalities.

Read "Testing for BPA: Concern Over Canned Foods" for information on BPA and to read about Consumer Reports BPA testing.  

In the study, published in Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers measured the amount of BPA in the urine of 24 volunteers before and after they spent two hours handling thermal paper receipts. About a week later, half of the volunteers returned to perform the experiment again, but this time they wore nitrile gloves (the type commonly used in doctor’s offices and hospitals).

In the first group, BPA levels taken four hours after handling receipts were three times higher than they were at baseline; eight hours later, BPA levels were five times higher. But there was no significant increase in the group that wore gloves.

"We now have several hundred studies—including more than 50 in humans—showing health effects from BPA at exposure levels we experience in everyday life, indicating the need for strong safety guidelines to protect public health,” said Laura Vandenberg, Ph.D., assistant professor of environmental science at University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, who was the lead author of a recent report analyzing more than 450 studies on the effects of low-level BPA exposure.

“A larger study is needed to confirm our findings, but the results suggest that skin absorption of BPA may be of particular concern to people who handle receipts frequently, such as cashiers,” said the JAMA study’s lead author, Shelley Ehrlich, M.D., of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. Even if you’re not a cashier, you still may be getting more BPA exposure than you realize because thermal paper is also used in airline boarding passes and luggage tags, tickets for trains, movies, sporting events and amusement parks, labels on prescription bottles or packaged supermarket items such as deli meats and cheeses, fax paper, and lottery tickets.  A quick test can tell you if the paper you’re handling is of the thermal type. Scratch the printed side of the paper. If you see a dark mark, the paper is thermal.

Some manufacturers make “BPA free” thermal paper, but it’s often coated with a chemical called BPS. According to a 2014 report from the EPA, BPS may pose health hazards similar to BPA because the two chemicals are structurally alike and BPS is also easily transferred to skin.

5 Ways to Reduce Your Exposure  

You can minimize your risk from BPA-coated receipts by taking a few simple precautions:

1. Wear nitrile gloves (widely available online or at drugstores) if your job requires frequent contact with receipts.

2. Decline paper receipts at gas pumps, ATMs or retail cash registers, opting instead to have your receipt e-mailed if you’re given that choice. If you can, use your smart phone for plane and train tickets.

3. Use a sealed plastic bag to store receipts you need to keep rather than carrying them loose in your wallet, purse or shopping bag. The coating can just as easily rub off on other items and when you handle those, you’ll be picking up the BPA.

4. Wash your hands as soon as possible after touching receipts, especially before cooking or eating food.  Use soap and water rather than alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which increase the skin’s ability to absorb BPA.

5. Avoid handling thermal paper if you are pregnant and keep it out of children’s hands too.  Studies suggest prenatal and early life exposure to BPA poses the greatest potential health risks.

—Andrea Rock

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